Though the two films are separated by a decade, Morris’ achievement is still fresh in our minds. How he weaved together the tales of his four unlikely characters — an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a mole-rat researcher, and a robotics designer — is a testament to film editing and the narrative structure possible within a documentary.
Jessica Yu’s documentary similarly examines four men, albeit from wildly new backgrounds: a German ex- terrorist, an ex-bank robber, an ex-”ex-gay” evangelist, and an ex-martial arts student. Her subjects’ one overwhelming life intersection is their shared epiphanies that their former lives were based on false suppositions. Carefully weaved throughout, Yu juxtaposes these four sagas against Greek dramatic structure. At first, this comparative tool is off-putting, but the effect tends to grow on you. You’ll know it when you see it. Never would I have guessed that marionettes could be used to such extent!
Though I would maintain that Morris’ documentary remains a stronger example of intertwining unlikely subjects in a film, I would go so far as to say that Yu’s Protagonist does it one better in unifying the central theme. Where Morris’ common ground eludes us until we are quite far into the film, Yu’s theme makes itself very apparent early on. That theme happens to be quite an indictment on Western culture’s definition of maleness.
In each of their cases, these boys were broken by their fathers and/or friends in early childhood. The bank robber was systematically beaten by his church deacon father. The ex-gay evangelist was taunted for being effeminate and pressured by his religious father not to cry or show emotion. The martial artist was ashamed of his “weak” father and also bullied by his friends into feeling powerless. The German political radical had an anti-Semitic father and his mother committed suicide.
Truly great in both films is the excellent choice of subjects. The interviewees are all very articulate. What could have been mundane, their stories become riveting. I truly love these kind of documentaries, where a story (however amazing or ordinary) is told with care and reverence.
Jessica Yu is one to watch. Comparing her to Morris is no small feat.